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(The 2019 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran April 4-7 in Durham, NC. Stay tuned for a smattering of excellent reviews. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not share just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Jazz legend Miles Davis (1926-1991) gets his cinematic due in documentarian Stanley Nelson’s latest work, the comprehensive Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, the title of which comes from its subject’s eponymous 1957 compilation album. Following Davis from birth to death, Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) showcases his genius and talent, while also shedding light on his considerable demons. Still, even if by no means a hagiography, the movie nevertheless skirts the more troubling aspects of Davis’ mercurial moods, allowing some discussion of his physical abuse of women without delivering the full reckoning that such revelations deserve. No amount of brilliance and cultural significance can justify bad behavior, though Davis is hardly alone in his violence. He was certainly one of a kind when it came to musical innovation, and Nelson’s film makes amply clear why his legacy lasts to this day.

Beyond the standard techniques of the nonfiction biopic – talking-head interviews, archival footage and stills, dramatized readings of the subject’s own words – Nelson employs some vivid quick-cut montages to sell us on Davis’ rapid rise to iconic status. Not only did he become, by the end of the 1940s and not yet 25, a sought-after trumpeter and composer, but soon thereafter, in the 1950s, a symbol of hipness that was both a source of pride for the American-American community and also a transcendence of racial barriers. Until, that is, he was punched in the head in 1959 by a racist New York City cop. No matter how successful, black men always remain a target.

Even before that incident, Davis had struggled with drugs, falling into a nasty heroin habit after a visit to France in 1949, the nasty slap of American segregation and racism hitting him hard, upon his return, after palling around as an equal with Parisian intellectuals and artists. He kicked that first addiction after a while, but not for good, and in the 1960s, even as he lived with the love of his life, dancer Frances Taylor, the pressures of life in the United States and of topping his own triumphs led him back, time and again, to different forms of self-medication. This, in turn, fueled a depression and anger that made him beat Frances and the lovers that followed. Which is definitely not cool at all.

Nelson covers all the milestones, including seminal albums like Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Bitches Brew and more. Davis arrived on the scene during the heyday of bebop, with its complicated fast-paced rhythms, deciding to slow down his own music in opposition to the trend. Trained at Juilliard in classical techniques, he combined multiple traditions in his compositions, creating a sound both fresh and harmonious. He would continue to update his style with each decade, though on hiatus at times from the drugs and a 1970s accident that took him out of commission for a while. But he would always return, somehow forgiven and able to deliver exciting new music. Perhaps one day his problematic relationships with women will eclipse his artistic contributions, but for now we have this movie to remind us why, for many, he still very much matters.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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